Attention spans are woefully short nowadays. There’s too much information competing for our attention, and it’s all cleverly designed to pull us away from whatever we were doing before. So how do you get an message across when you have — by some estimates — less than eight seconds to make an impression?
Startups and organizations often use executive summaries to pitch their ideas and proposals. These brief documents are designed to convey a compelling message in as direct a way as possible. But while they’re often used by companies looking for investors, they can be a valuable tool for teams and project managers as well.
For instance, you might be a manager or individual contributor who knows they have a great idea. You put together a proposal, redesign a process, or solve a challenge — but your ideas don’t seem to get any traction. You might successfully present them to your manager, but the pitch just seems to die when they get forwarded along to the C-suite.
Each level and audience needs a different level of detail, presented in the right order, to be clear, compelling, and address their goals and interests. No matter what you’re proposing, your executive summary needs to be an effective way to present the highlights of your offer to potential investors, stakeholders, or clients. It should be written in a clear, logical, and easy-to-understand way that takes into account the reader’s background and interests. And — given what we know about the busy lives of most execs — it should be written in a way that takes distractions and time constraints in mind.
Master the key components of writing an effective executive summary in this article.
What is an executive summary?
When we have a brilliant idea, we usually want to get started with our idea as soon as possible. We want to do market research, create products or services that solve problems, identify stakeholders, and get the go-ahead to start our project. But before all of that happens, we need to come up with an effective executive summary.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is a clear and compelling summary of the problem and proposed solution. Usually no more than one page, it distills the key points from a project proposal or business plan. It summarizes what key stakeholders need to know in order to make a decision to support you, and how they can do so effectively.
Different organizations have slightly different uses for their executive summaries. Entrepreneurs and startups might rely on them to secure funding. A management team might use it to give leaders a high-level overview of a new initiative. Established companies may use it as a part of their marketing strategy.
So imagine, Shark Tank-style, you’re reaching out to a potential investor who can help your product or service reach millions. Or you finally got that 30-minute meeting booked with the CMO or VP. You want to make the best impression in that short time, because you need them to make a decision or authorize resources to make your project happen.
Regardless of who your target market is, you need an executive summary. Having a compelling, brief way to share your key value proposition to a potential partner can give you a competitive advantage.
Sending a brief executive summary in advance creates the possibility that they will have thought about your idea and be ready to discuss. And even if they’re not ready to move forward, you’ve had a chance to present your ideas, you won’t blindside them, and they’ll have something to mull over. It may even end up on the desk of another decision maker.
Executive summaries and abstracts
An executive summary is not the same as an abstract. Executive summaries focus on the main points of a proposal. They highlight when and why a reader should invest in the company or project.
An abstract, on the other hand, concentrates on what the business does and its marketing plan. It typically doesn’t include detailed information about finances. While it is usually compelling, it’s less of an elevator pitch and more of a summary. The goal of an abstract is to inform, not to persuade. On the other hand, the goal of an executive summary is to give readers who are pressed for time just enough information that they’ll want to look further into your proposition.
Why do you need to write one?
For a business owner, an executive summary is one of the most important documents you will have. Like a business plan, they help you lay out the potential value of your business and your potential for success.
Unlike a business proposal, however, an executive summary is designed to be read in a brief amount of time. That makes them ideal for a variety of uses, like project proposals and research summaries. Sending your strategic plan to a prospective investor or stakeholder likely won’t get you far. But a brief report that clearly states your key findings and what’s in it for them might help you — and your proposal — stand out. It isn’t all the details. It’s what gets you the meeting to share more.
An executive summary is also a business document that can travel without you. It may be presented to other leaders and potential investors. If it’s written well, it will take on a life of its own. You may find that you get support and resources from places you never imagined.
What should be included in an executive summary?
Executive summaries typically follow a one-page template, so that they can be concise, professional, and easy to read. Conveying all the information you need to have in such a short space might be challenging. When designing your executive summary, remember that you’re not trying to give your reader enough information to make a decision. You’re just trying to get them excited about hearing more.
Parts of an executive summary
Your executive summary should include brief descriptions of who your product, service, or proposal is for and what distinguishes it from competitors. Include any necessary background information and statistics about the industry. Depending on your proposal, you may want to consider providing a market analysis of your target audience.
Your goal is a compelling story with only essential information, in the interest of capturing the reader’s attention quickly. Executives have multiple priorities competing for their attention. You want to create something that’s compelling, valuable, and can be absorbed in a limited time. Every piece of information in the entire document should be chosen with that in mind.
Components of an executive summary
- Table of contents
- Company description
- Project plan (problem statement and proposed solution)
- Funding request
How to write an executive summary
If you’re an entrepreneur, you should write the executive summary after you’ve completed the full business plan. It will provide an overview of the most important points of your business idea, and the specific support you’ll need to be successful.
If you’re creating an executive summary to present to the leadership team at your organization, it may still be helpful to draft your entire project plan first. It will be easier to write your summary after you’ve worked through the pain points, your solution, and how this impacts the business executives you’re talking to.
Title and introduction
There’s one job that your title and introduction needs to do — grab their attention. It’s almost a summary of the summary. If your decision makers read nothing else, they should walk away with an understanding of what you’re proposing, the problem you’re solving, and why now is the right time.
Table of contents
Even though your document is short, it’s a good idea to include a brief table of contents near the top of the page. This will serve as a quick overview of the points you make in the summary. That way, if your reader is looking for something specific (whether on a first glance or for later reference) they’ll be able to locate it quickly.
In this section, you should include a brief background of your business’ qualifications and experience. Include your mission statement and where you currently stand in the market.
If you’re presenting to executive management at your company, you should still include this information. Tell them what your team has accomplished and what you’re poised to do. Make the case as to why your team deserves this allocation of the company’s resources.
Write a problem statement that creates awareness of the problem. What information does your reader need to know in order to get the urgency of the problem? Will they be able to understand your proposed solution and why you’re the best answer?
This section might be tricky to write, given the space constraints. Stick to key milestones. You can outline the full plan, step-by-step, in the full proposal. This section should give just enough information so that the reader understands the actions that need to be taken and what a successful solution would look like.
For a small business, the request is typically an ask for funding. This pins down the importance of a strong case in the earlier sections. You’re essentially leading with the ask, even though most requests won’t be approved solely based on the executive summary.
For teams, there may still be a request for funding or an allocation of other resources. However, this section should clearly state the decision that the project manager wants the executive to make. It should drive the importance of making that decision and why now is the right time.
While not technically a section, you should still dedicate ample time to proofreading the summary once it’s finished. Look for errors in grammar and spelling. But — and perhaps, more importantly — send it to others and ask for feedback. Try to get a range of proofreaders both in and out of your industry. Is it easy to understand? Does it make them want to take action or learn more? Which sections are especially effective, and which feel unnecessary? Do you make a strong case for the support you’re requesting?
An executive summary isn’t the kitchen sink — it’s the bells and whistles. Geared towards busy decision-makers, these one-pagers communicate your case for action and proposed solution. When it’s written well, your audience will walk away with an understanding of what needs to be done, why it needs to happen, and why they should help it move forward.
But writing it well doesn’t just mean spell-checking. It means tailoring your communication to an influential, yet busy and distracted audience. To be effective, you’ll need to write your proposal with empathy and an understanding of what matters to them.
If you need support building your communication skills, developing, or scaling an organization, we can support you as you grow. Schedule a demo with BetterUp today.